Watching Soccer While American: NFL Conference Championship Edition

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A soccer player suffering an injury. See comment #2. (Reuters)

In dispatches here, here, and here, I ventured onto the ever-perilous terrain of comparing different kinds of “football” around the world. In specific, the American variety, which reached its semi-final level today with the conference championships, and the fùtbol played and loved in many other countries.

Set-up note: of course I realize that interest in and respect for different sports is mainly national-culture conditioned, with curlicues based on which sports you’ve tried yourself plus which you feel most comfortable/successful in. I grew up steeped in the stats, strategies, and rulebooks of baseball and American football, plus playing on tennis teams and doing distance running. Thus esoteric baseball rules of the balk and the squeeze play seem perfectly sensible to me; whereas the (fundamentally similar) sport of cricket is for me still an utter mystery.  With that apologia, readers weigh in on the American football / world fùtbol equation.

1) High concept: football, fùtbol, and the OODA Loop. The OODA loop is of course a concept from the Air Force fighter pilot John Boyd that I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere. (In brief, it means reacting to changing circumstances more quickly than your opponent does, thereby leaving an opponent increasingly flummoxed.) A reader matches this concept to sports:

One way to understand the evolution of major sports in America is to see the way that they reflect the social values of the times in which they gained widespread popularity.  Three examples:  

Baseball, which grew to dominate the first half of the previous century, is the sport of individual craftsmen who each have a specialized role to play, with most run-of-play leisurely, spontaneous, sequential and easy to follow.  Time is not a factor, so planning can take as long as desired. Coaches dictate strategy from off the field.

American football, which has increasingly taken pride of place since midcentury, is the sport of corporate business, with each play a sequential business plan that can be decided in advance, executed and  then evaluated for results.  The quarterback rather than the head coach is the “CEO” on the field. Time is a defined entity to be doled out and managed in discrete pieces, like a business year (allowing maximum opportunity for corporate advertising). Actual run-of-play is more simultaneous and parallel, reflecting a business-is-war-like orientation where many plans/plays don’t survive first contact with the enemy and end in desperate improvisation.

Soccer, just now gaining global preeminence, is the postmodern sport in which the run-of-play is almost an end in itself and the scoring is rather secondary.  Time is a factor but just flows uncontrollably; the  rigid American-football hour of time can even be stretched into an unpredictable amount of “extra time.”  Game planning happens in-the-flow of time and is not usefully directed by a single dominant player or the sidelined coach.  Distributed in space and time, while not fully controllable, a soccer match is watched for its character as “the beautiful game,”  In comparison, American football is just a compulsive exercise in  the futility of pretending that life can be dominated by rational planning (a quaint twentieth century notion).

To roll in another recent thread, each sport has a characteristic OODA loop dynamic (observe-orient-decide-act).  While baseball can do little to change the framework of battle, and American football tries to do so via rational piecewise actions, most of soccer is a constantly changing attempt to redefine the field to gain merely-momentary advantages to prevail. Just like much of modern life.

2) Soccer vs. rugby. A reader writes with an observation that rings true to me:

I think I saw this quote somewhere in the articles written about NZ Rugby star Richie McCaw’s retirement:

“Soccer is 90 minutes of men pretending they’re hurt. Rugby is 80 minutes of men pretending they’re not.”

3) Football, soccer, and the American mis-use of law. A reader disagrees with the American-in-Portugal I quoted previously:

Your correspondent paints an ignorant picture of soccer. Even if he can’t see them, soccer has set plays and formations, and game plans to execute. Then again, if he has been watching the Portuguese league, I can understand.

If football is good in the best American way, it is also awful in the worst way. An increasingly inscrutable rulebook and instant replay has turned football games into legal colloquia. Wealthy owners are offered tax breaks to move businesses thousands of miles away. And after each play is followed by three minutes of ads and replays, people get to congratulate themselves for having the perspicacity to blame the cornerback, even when it was the safety who was supposed to provide cover.

4) A Texan changes from football to soccer.  From a reader in Dallas:

I was once a huge football fan.  The violence and NFL's obliviously tone def response is what did me in. Nevermind the grotesque deal football 'student-athletes' get through the NCAA.

For me it's mostly three things:

1) Despite the common refrain, there is in fact always something happening in soccer. A team either has the ball or is about to lose it. If you're watching a good matchup or a team with quality players or a coach with a particular system, there's danger in each win/loss of possession. Tactics in football favor really conservative and bleak guidelines. Finally, instant replay and commercial timeouts are really very boring.

2) If you're into European soccer, you're not beholden to the couch as much. You can enjoy some coffee and lunch and the rest of your day is all there. Football, at a minimum, goes from 12pm to 12am Sat and Sun.

3) Finally, your fandom follows more of an arc. In college football, your season may be over after only one loss. In the NFL, you only have 16 chances to make a single elimination playoff. In soccer there are many competitions in more places and even the losers must play to avoid relegation. Injuries to star players hurt your chances but with other pieces and tactics and maybe luck it doesn't have to be a death knell.

Anyway, it's a good and beautiful sport where even if your team doesn't score you can (hopefully) applaud and cheer hard work and look forward to the next game.

5) The beer-drinking angle. From a U.S. reader:

For the past 20 years or so I have felt that with all the timeouts, stoppages in play, advertisements, flags, challenges, huddles, mulligans, that only someone with BPH or who drinks lots of beers can enjoy due to the need to stretch 60 minutes into three or four hours.

And so I moved on to soccer.

6) The Soviet angle. Also from an American:

Many years ago, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who predicted that I would ever look forward to Saturday EPL games. It is now the highlight of my sports week.

How did that happen? And how much of that is due to my disgust with the NFL?

To answer the first - it grew on me, greatly encouraged by my enjoyment of the announcers. American football announcer - " He got faked out of his socks!". British counterpart - " He left the defender twisting like a leaf in an autumn wind." Watching the best athletes in the world balance team play with individual effort and extraordinary creativity is a joy. Having witty, knowledgeable people dissect the game adds greatly to the enjoyment.  Some boring games? Yes, but that is not exclusive to soccer. I've watched some real snoozer football, baseball and basketball games, too.

To answer the second (and to extend on answering the first) - When I watch an EPL game, I am conscious that the announcers genuinely love the game and the various characters that play it, and just tolerate the business side of it as a necessary evil. When I watch an NFL game, that love of game/players is overshadowed by the obvious care that they take to remain loyal league employees.

Your recent discussion about the NFL camouflage accessories, and my observance of the simplicity and reverence of the contrasting English ceremonies honoring their war dead at their sporting events, made me realize how much I despised the NFL as an American institution. To me, the NFL is almost comparable to the 70's-era Russian Olympic teams. If the Russians had worried about "ancillary income", the comparison would be perfect

7) Brownian motion. Adding the Canadians to the mix:

I have always joked that hockey is the perfect human-scale simulation of Brownian Motion, and now, after reading [the report from the American in Portugal], I'll have to include soccer in that description...

8) American character. Almost-finally for now:

Your series on soccer and other sports reminds me of a George Will statement many years ago. He of course much prefers baseball; but he called football "the quintessential American sport because it combines long committee meetings with brief bursts of violence."  

9) Self-preservation. A reader who is originally from England writes:

I'd love to hear your thoughts on cricket.

I responded: “I already have enough problems.” Though I do enjoy Malaysian sepak takraw! That is all.